Sunday, February 7, 2010

Thought for a Sunday Afternoon

If there's one thing we humans are endlessly fascinated with, it's puzzling over our own nature. We constantly marvel at patterns or trends in behavior that illuminate some core aspect of our humanity as though we aren't privy to our own humanness in every waking moment.

When I was in college, there were two wings on each floor of the dorm I lived in: one side was boys; the other, girls. Each wing had a communal bathroom (this was my freshman year, and having a room with its own bathroom was a thoroughly upperclassman luxury). The arrangement of the building resulted in a shared wall between the boy's room and the girl's room.

One day, while sitting in the back-most stall in the bathroom, I suddenly felt the toilet lift slightly beneath me. The toilets were the sort you often find in public restrooms, the kind that jut out from the wall, rather than the quaint, tank-backed homestyle ones. After a few minutes, I felt the toilet lower again, and then heard a muffled sound of flushing coming from the other side of the wall.

Over the course of several months, this happened to me a few more times. Clearly, the toilet was loosely connected to the wall, and via the shared plumbing or something, the corresponding women's toilet was transformed into a barely functional, not-all-that-fun seesaw. It was also a little odd in that the second person to sit down really had no idea they were sharing a toilet moment with someone else; only the already sitting person would be able to perceive the slight rise or fall underneath them.

One day, this toilet phenomenon was raised in conversation with some other guys that lived on the floor, and it became quickly apparent that a few of us had experienced the same thing while sitting in that last, lonely stall.

The remarkable thing wasn't just that we shared the same funny toilet-rising experience. No. As we soon discovered, we had also each independently arrived at the same reaction to the knowledge that someone else was sitting on the connecting toilet. After our initial "uplifting" toilet episodes, each time we used that toilet again, we would wait patiently, hoping that someone would take a seat on the other side of the wall. And when we finally felt the gentle rise beneath us as an unsuspecting girl sat down, we all had decided that the best course of action would be to wildly bounce up and down on our own toilets, presumably giving the person on the other side the rowdiest ride a toilet had ever afforded them. A lonely sort of humor, yes, but you make do with what you have in the restrictive environment of a restroom stall.

So I guess in retrospect, maybe an anecdote that's not so much revealing about human nature as it is indicative of boys not quite out of adolescence. Mildly fascinating all the same.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Threadgill the Innovator: Zooid and its Intervallic Language

zo⋅oid /ˈzoʊɔɪd/[zoh-oid] Biology
1. any organic body or cell capable of spontaneous movement and of an existence more or less apart from or independent of the parent organism.

Musically, we live in a strange time. There is more musical diversity than ever before in history, but paradoxically, there's also a pervasive feeling that there is little true innovation occurring in modern music. This feeling is especially prominent in popular music, but even within each niche genre, it often seems like
there are only many gradations of the same basic thing. The long and storied history of music seems to leave little room for anything genuinely innovative or never-before-heard.

But innovation certainly exists. Often the most creative musicians toil away in obscurity, their ideas and experiments too abstract or rough-edged for widespread acceptance. But their ideas do find a home in the annals of music theory. It may be more difficult to search out in the 21st century, but new ground can be broken.

Henry Threadgill is a musician that has been unfairly marginalized for much of his career. His stature is huge among those who have played with him or know his music well, but his ever-shifting, idiosyncratic approach to music making has always occurred in the shadow of larger trends in jazz and creative composition.

Late in 2009, Threadgill and his Zooid ensemble released This Brings Us To, Vol. 1, the first full-fledged realization of a compositional and improvisational language he and the band have been honing for nearly a decade. (The new language made its first recorded appearance with the Make a Move band on a few tracks from 2001's Everybody's Mouth's A Book, though).

Threadgill refers to his musical language as "the System," and describes it as a "serial intervallic language." There's not a lot of information currently available about the intricacies of the system, but after consulting a few articles and online sources, I've been able to get a general picture of how Zooid operates.

Zooid uses series of intervals as a basis for both composition and improvisation. These series are generated using three-note chords, which Threadgill refers to as "cells." Once an initial chord is chosen, Threadgill determines the interval relationships between each note in the chord, and using those intervals, generates several more chords (in what Vijay Iyer calls a "closed family"). Each chord is related to the others, all derived using the same small set of intervals. Guitarist Liberty Ellman explains:
"if there’s a minor second in the first chord, you can take the top [note] and go a minor second from that, or you can take one of the bottom notes and go down a minor second. All of those chords share the same interval set...if you have one bar of music with four chords, all four chords are going to have the same interval relationships."
In performance, the band uses lead sheets with a set of bracketed numbers near the chord progressions, indicating the series of associated intervals.

These intervallic series dictate everything: the melodic line, voice leading, harmonic interactions, you name it. As the band moves from series to series, notes must be selected using the allowed intervals. Ellman uses an example series that contains a minor second. When moving from a D chord to an E-flat, it is permissible to move the half-step up, which is a minor second. But moving down from D to E-flat would require an interval of a seventh, and if a seventh is not in the interval set, the movement can't be made. Even though both notes are the same pitch, both are not allowed in the given scenario. Interval sets are used for as little as one bar of music to as much as an entire piece, though Threadgill states that a set and its related chords are usually used for two measures.

Most of Zooid's pieces are contrapuntal, with each member producing a unique train of musical ideas within the intervallic series. The balance of the counterpoint depends entirely on each member's adherence to the rules of the system. This is particularly crucial when members are comping, as the musicians are gliding over ambiguous harmonic ground. As long as everyone sticks to the allowable intervals as a piece progresses, the music surges to life. If someone falls out of the language, everything collapses.

Threadgill's approach forces musicians to be creative. Traditional jazz methodologies don't work within the context of the system. Scales and arpeggios and harmonic tactics that are used in major/minor (and even modal) music just don't fit. When Ellman first started playing with Threadgill, he found that using a jazz vocabulary didn't sound right. In the obscure harmonic atmosphere of Threadgill's language, tried-and-true jazz licks and patterns are useless. It's all about the intervals. Threadgill is well aware of this:
"Real creativity needs to occur not by playing something that you been playing over and over again and playing some variation of it, but to create something in the moment, right in the moment. That's creative improvisation. To be able to approach a musical terrain and you've got all these solutions for it, I don't consider that creative at this point."

But what does it all sound like? Zooid sticks to acoustic instrumentation: Threadgill on flute and alto sax, Ellman on acoustic guitar, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar, Jose Davila on tuba and trombone, and Elliot Humberto Kavee at the drums. Kavee's contribution is massive: his propulsive drumming lends a funky, upbeat air to the group, despite an overall lack of strong beats. There's a lively pulse, but it can't easily be counted out like James Brown-style funk. Over the drums, counterpoint rules. Each instrument unravels its own melodic lines, and quickly the distinction is blurred between composition and improvisation, comping and soloing. The sound is complex and at times prickly, a stew of harmonic interaction that's difficult to pin down. There's no tension-building or resolution, just an exciting, taut feeling that betrays the delicate balance of the intervallic interactions. It sounds like a bustling jazz band, but something is distinctly different. Even if it can't be adequately articulated, you can
feel that Zooid is something musically new and untamed. It's the System.

Take a listen:

"To Undertake My Corners Open" from This Brings Us To, Vol. 1

"After Some Time" from This Brings Us To, Vol. 1

Further reading:

Pi Recordings: This Brings Us To, Vol. 1 album page
The Wire: Unedited interview with Henry Threadgill
New York Times: "Master of the Mutable," feature on Threadgill
The Gig: "Regarding Henry," including a discussion with Liberty Ellman
Roulette: Event page for "All the Way Light Touch" commission
SpiderMonkey Stories: "A to Zooid," Taylor Ho Bynum's take on Threadgill

Photos: Claudio Casanova, All About Jazz; Richard Kamins, Hartford Courant